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The mother/sister/daughter mantra

Published Mar 22, 2013 02:28pm


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I asked for bread, and I got a stone in the shape of a pedestal.

–Louisa May Alcott

“We are mothers, we are sisters, we are daughters. The honour of our nation lies with us.” I still remember the first time I heard (or rather, saw) this song; it was part of a live telecast on PTV and the date was Dec 2, 1988.

That was the day Pakistan became the first Muslim country to usher in a woman as prime minister and one of a mere handful of countries to boast a woman as an elected head of government. It was an immensely proud moment, both for the country and its women and PTV chose to commemorate it by eulogising mothers, sisters and daughters.

Now most people won’t see this as a problem, or even as slightly odd. After all every woman is a daughter, most are sisters and many go on to be mothers. What’s wrong with that? Exactly. It’s a statement of fact, so why are we singing about it? What are we paying tribute to here — an accident of birth? A fact of nature?

What we are doing, is defining every woman by her relationship to another person rather than as a person in her own right; and that relationship (by implication if not stated overtly) is usually with a man. The self-sacrificing mother who bravely sends her son to war; the devoted sister who pampers her brother, the obedient daughter who makes her father proud. These are images we have been bombarded with — in films, TV dramas and song videos; in textbook essays in school and stories in women’s magazines. Before we even realised it the mother/sister/daughter mantra had become the background score to our lives and we automatically took our place in the designated pigeon hole.

Don’t like a pigeon hole? Never mind, if you’re a good girl they’ll give you a halo and let you stand on a pedestal. That will keep you out of the way while they get on with the important stuff — like fighting wars and making a mess of running the country. Because as a woman you are the upholder of the honour of your men folk (remember the second line of the song quoted above?) and keeping the halo polished is your prime responsibility.

“Respect women”, we tell our sons, “for they are all someone’s mother, sister or daughter.” Ah, yes. But the childless woman; the woman whose father has died and has no brother to ‘protect her honour’ — well, she’s fair game, isn’t she? This is the kind of logic we perpetuate when we glorify a woman by her relationship rather than as a person.

And what about the women who want to be defined as people rather than as relationships? The mothers, daughters and sisters who are also doctors, lawyers and teachers; the wives, aunts and mothers-in-law who are pilots, professors, and yes, even prime ministers? Well, they can certainly be all that and more (as they have proved time and again) but in the final analysis the mother/sister/daughter card will trump everything else.

Because in our culture we learn at a young age that true validation comes only from our relationship (specifically to a man). A woman without a son, without a brother, and most importantly without a husband, is viewed at best with pity, at worst with trepidation (ask any mother who has only daughters how often she has to face the pity and sometimes scorn of the phrase, ‘beta nahin hai?’) And let’s not even get into the discrimination faced by single women — no matter how accomplished in their chosen field.

It’s been 25 years since Pakistan swore in its first and only woman prime minister and she’s long gone. But the song continues to haunt our airwaves, played with smug pride every Women’s Day. Perhaps, by the time the next woman is elected head of state we will be singing a different tune but I wouldn’t bet on it — after all, a prime minister’s office is for five years at most; a pedestal is for life.


Shagufta Naaz is a Dawn staffer



The following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Shagufta Naaz is a Dawn staffer

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (39) Closed

Rajesh Mar 22, 2013 08:19am
Clever victimhood analysis .... but this song is directed towards men as women cannot dishonour other women. The song tries to humanize the woman by making the attacker realize it could be his relations who could be attacked thus.
Farhan Mar 22, 2013 09:01am
Nice write-up - very thought-provoking. I don't know how the status quo came to be, but I don't think the 'establishment' or society had the nefarious designs to define women by their relationships. Please keep writing - looking forward to more articles.
Umesh Gupta Mar 22, 2013 09:19am
Although culture is same in the whole of sub-continent but in India women are coming out of ghettos. Parents now a days do not lament absence of son. Girls are trying to assert same right as boys and taking care of their parents. Fortunately in India religion is not an issue for women liberation.
Arnold Bush Mar 22, 2013 09:32am
Your personal bias is at play here. I'm not saying that in a degrading manner. Everyone's biases often come into play. You are looking at the two lines in the song separately. If you focus on them together and look around you, you will notice that what is being highlighted is not what you claim, i.e., the self-scarificing etc. It is, perhaps, a derivative of that. Mothers, daughters, sisters are all relations of "respect", in the sense that mothers, daughters and sisters are respected. That is the beauty of our society. In the west, everyone is equal, hence who cares if you just bore a child. That beauty of our society is being celebrated in this song, in my opinion.
Faraz Mar 22, 2013 09:49am
All correct. Truly agreed. Accomplished or not, they must not be referred by their guardian. They naturally deserve to be treated as autonomous.
Prince Mar 22, 2013 10:52am
Without women this world would be a useless place.
Imran Haider Mar 22, 2013 01:18pm
@Shagufta, I think you are over-analyzing here.
Sheetal Mar 22, 2013 01:39pm
You have a point, however, the author is pointing towards lack of empowerment as far as women are concerned. I agree with you that respect for women as mother and as sister is part of our culture but it depends so heavily on man's whims and fancies. I may or may not accord respect. I may withdraw my respect if I find her fashionable....right ? We apply different yardsticks when it comes to women.
Tariq Mar 22, 2013 02:24pm
"A World without a woman or a girl would be nothing". James Brown!
D Mar 22, 2013 02:47pm
Attagirl! I can completely relate to every single word you have written here! Especially, "But the childless woman; the woman whose father has died and has no brother to
Sexism Mar 22, 2013 03:46pm
This is the soft-sexism side of societies all over the world, not just Pakistan. For example, in the West, I feel anyway, most women are portrayed as being obsessed with one thing: finding a mate. Pakistan is still dealing with hard-sexism. The subtle sexism the author has highlighted can be tackled after some of the bigger issues have been addressed, e.g. Hudood and Inheritance Laws, single/divorced woman stigma. P.S. Pakistan can be truly proud only after a non-dynastic woman becomes PM/President. Benazir, sadly, does not count.
imran Mar 22, 2013 04:19pm
But why some indians keep aborting their girls before they are born.
Dr syed Mar 22, 2013 05:19pm
Very true, particularly the scorn independent unattached working females get.
Jeff Mar 22, 2013 05:41pm
Excellent article with a unique vision.!
shirin Mar 22, 2013 06:41pm
I so completly agree with you. This has been my position since I was a teenager. If one doesn't get it, then he must be a man. Every imam, every maulana, every zakir with a topi, tells us all the time the status Islam bestows on mothers, sisters, and daughters. But if I ask about the status of man in Islam, I NEVER get the response in terms of fathers, brothers, and sons. It so happens, I am least interested in my rights as someone's sisteror mother. I want you to see me as I am, a person, an individual, a human being, complete on her own. I just know our lord sees me as a person, and on day of judgement will me treat me as one, but you can't, and that makes YOU a big problem.
umer Mar 22, 2013 07:07pm
A neat, clear-cut, and well-written analysis of women in Pakistan. Not just in Pakistan but in numerous countries.
sarah Mar 22, 2013 09:54pm
I wonder why men are not referred as someone's son, brother, father. Why do women need to be defined by a specific role they are expected to play in a society and men are, well, just men? I think men and women, of all kinds are human beings first -"people" like the author said.
sarahalvi Mar 22, 2013 09:59pm
I wonder why men are not referred to as "brothers, sons and fathers?" Why do women need to be defined by roles they are expected to play in a society? And all men are, well, just men. I agree with the author that men and women are human beings first, "people" like she has said.
Rp Mar 22, 2013 10:31pm
So beautifully said!
Rp Mar 22, 2013 11:09pm
I apologize Farhan, I have to disagree with you on this one. Each society has a definite structure which gets inculcated into our brains the moment we start venturing into that society. The rules, the images, the songs that are aligned with that existing structure of the society (which develops slowly over cneturies) appeal to our soul and we accept tham and promote them. Similarly the rules that hurt that existing structure don't appeal to us and we just don't accept them. The scenario presented in this article is a beautiful case in point - in Eastren cultures, most of the societies curtail women's freedom and the only images of the female-being, that appeal to us, are those where the woman is in a supportive role - si.e. upportive to the male role/effort. This is in contrast with the Westren cultures where women's freedom has taken the next step. In those cultures, images of women accomplished in their chosen fields - may that be acting, singing, dancing or what ever, are revered. So, I believe (and I don't claim to be a master on the subject) that definition of men or women and their relationships with each other and the ways each gets respected in ingrained into the societal design. Does religion play a part into this? Of course it does, a religion is an integral part of the society; its rules become an integral part of the socital rules. Inspite of the horrors of these acts, honor killings and Sati like practices are/were easily stomached by society.
Logical Mar 23, 2013 01:35am
Have you ever thought of getting out of that place to see how women are treated in the rest of the world - the real world? If not then you should. Only then will you witness the power of the archaic customs and traditions in that country. Customs mainly created and deliberately enforced by the insecure men around you for the sole purpose of suppressing and dehumanizing women.
Sue Sturgess Mar 23, 2013 02:50am
Everyone (male and female) is responsible for his/her own honour, and no-one elses.
Sue Sturgess Mar 23, 2013 02:56am
Of course women can dishonour other women, as well as themselves. You seem to assume that sex is the only form of dishonour. Sex is a natural interaction and not considered at all dishonourable in most modern societies. Much more more dishonourable are lies, fraud, theft, assault etc etc etc
Sue Sturgess Mar 23, 2013 02:58am
the world needs both genders
Nabila Mar 23, 2013 04:10am
It is not the same in different parts of India. Any ways it must be appreciated if women are enjoying their rights as full human beings.
Nabila Mar 23, 2013 04:14am
Sick hypothesis........and Shagufta is challenging it already.
Nabila Mar 23, 2013 05:06am
Perfectly understandable, besides all these identities, a women is a woman, a full human being who deserves respect being a person; who deserves to enjoy all fundamental rights as a Pakistani citizen and all human rights being a human being.
Assistant Director Mar 23, 2013 05:34am
I think telling a man that he shouldn't disregard a women because she is sister to someone like he has one has, sends out a much stronger message versus telling the same man that he shouldn't disrespect a women because she is a women. it's same as telling a person "don't commit a for it's bad" versuse telling d same person, "don't committ a crime because if you do, you will be punished."
LOL Mar 23, 2013 06:37am
Let the women go. Be free. Unloved and uncared for on their own. Let them take care of themselves. Like in the West: Grist for the Mill...!
Sradhanand From Mauritius Mar 23, 2013 07:41am
Women as men deserve to be respected as they are human beings and not as sisters or brothers of X,Y or Z
jpsundriyal Mar 23, 2013 02:27pm
True, for the position of woman in India and Pakistan,why can't she live alone as an individual, as she lives life in WEST...?
jpsundriyal Mar 23, 2013 02:32pm
So nice...
suspicious malato Mar 23, 2013 02:57pm
Decent article. However what about the women who choose to be identified as such?
ndawud Mar 23, 2013 03:03pm
Decent article, however where do the women who choose to be defined as such stand in your opinion?
Shruti Mar 23, 2013 06:39pm
Should a women not be respected if she chooses not to marry or have a child? Are relationships the judgement criteria for a woman's greatness!! No. Hell no. Respecting a woman for her relationships is great. But that should be just so a father son brother would be respected. We can celebrate men as just the person they are without resorting to the father/son/brother mantra can't we?
Dilnawaz Mar 23, 2013 07:13pm
@Umesh Gupta, You have some nerve posting that after so many high profile rape cases in india? these rapes happen exactly because of this mindset: only your sister, mother or daughter is honorable, the rest are fair game.
LOL Mar 23, 2013 07:30pm
With out honor, women is just another product. Barter or cash...your choice.
Samia Mar 24, 2013 05:02am
A well written piece. As a woman I can say I do not want to be glorified as a goddess nor do I want to be treated as a fragile possession that needs to be protected and guided. I just want to be treated as an adult who can think for herself, has her own aspirations and desires, will make mistakes like any other human being and will face consequences of those. I do not want to be a symbol of someone else's honor.
RASHID Mar 24, 2013 06:17am
We are thankful to female prime minister because of him the whole honor of the country is down ....suppose, what would be with female public....ah